An epilogue for the episode Ties My Father Sold Me. A look at what happens when McCormick figures out that Sonny didn't lead the charge to break into the FBI's safe. Thanks and gratitude to Owlcroft for editing and to everyone who encouraged this second foray into fiction. (The standard disclaimer applies: I do not own these characters and make no profit from them.)
(and chocolate chip pancakes)
by Paula Douglas
Well, that fits, Hardcastle thought, gazing out his bedroom window at the misty, monochromatic dawn. The marine layer hung thick and low, turning the mile-distant beach a silvery dun and the ocean itself sullen and lead-colored. Grey and gloomy would probably be the forecast around the estate for a while, too, he figured, after their disastrous venture to Atlantic City to meet McCormick's father. The trip back to L.A. yesterday had felt like the longest six-hour flight he'd ever endured. On the way to New Jersey McCormick had been silent, withdrawn, and tense, but on the return trip he'd been silent, withdrawn, and morose, slumped in his seat, staring out the window with an expression of deep unhappiness. Hardcastle had left him alone with his thoughts, partly because he felt a delicacy about intruding on McCormick's evident disappointment and probable embarrassment, partly because he really didn't know what he could say that might help, and partly because his own feelings on the subject of Sonny Daye were decidedly mixed. He regretted the way the encounter had ended for McCormick and wouldn't have wished it on him for the world, but he had to admit to an ignoble relief that his own place in the kid's life remained intact. Sonny's loss, he thought with a gust of indignation. That dirtbag.
The Judge turned away from the window with a sigh. He pulled on his bathrobe and headed downstairs. He knew McCormick, and one of the traits he valued most in the kid was his perspicacity. The conclusion that he and Sonny had allowed McCormick to draw—that it was Sonny's idea to break into the FBI's safe—and which Hardcastle had done nothing since to correct, would not withstand McCormick's sober scrutiny, and since they'd left Atlantic City McCormick had been nothing if not sober. Hardcastle knew McCormick, and he knew that they'd be revisiting the subject sooner or later. When he arrived at the first floor landing and the aroma of fresh coffee hit him, he realized with dismay that it was going to be sooner.
Turning the corner into the kitchen, he paused in the doorway. McCormick had clearly been up for some time and had breakfast well in hand. Coffee steamed in the carafe, the table was set, and next to the orange juice lay the newspaper, unrolled but unread.
McCormick himself, dressed for a day of yard work, was standing at the sink and gazing meditatively out the window, clutching a bowl of pancake batter and absently dragging a whisk through it. He heard Hardcastle's step and turned to greet him with a smile. "Hey, Judge."
Hardcastle looked critically at him, but there was nothing disingenuous about that smile. If McCormick wasn't his cheerful, spirited self, he seemed at least to be back on the road to it. "Well, you're up early," the Judge noted. "What's the occasion?"
"No occasion," McCormick shrugged. "Well, unless you call mulch an occasion. It doesn't spread itself, you know. Or so I've been told."
"I see," Hardcastle said, not bothering to keep the skepticism out of his voice. He poured a cup of coffee and on his way to the table indicated the pancake batter with a nod. "Did you use buttermilk?"
"'Did I use buttermilk,'" McCormick sniffed. "Of course. What do you think I am, a savage?"
"If getting up this early makes you hand me openings like that, you should have slept in."
"Hah." McCormick set the bowl on the table and sat down across from the Judge. His smile faded and he said, a little diffidently, "Actually, uh…I kind of wanted to ask you something."
"There's a guy in Hawaii you need to talk to."
"Funny. No." He hesitated, started to say something, changed his mind, and finally came out with, "You and your dad. You were close. Weren't you?"
Hardcastle didn't answer at once. McCormick was temporizing, but the Judge didn't much mind that. He was perfectly willing to avoid the real subject for as long as possible. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. But it was different back then, you know. With fathers and sons, I mean. We weren't close the way you think of it now, with baseball and soapbox derbies and stuff like that."
McCormick hiked an eyebrow. "Soapbox derbies?"
Hardcastle waved his hand dismissively. "He was a farmer, you know, so he worked hard—he worked all day long. He didn't have time for games. And I had things I was busy with—"
"Yeah, I know. Like self-guided field trips through the nearest district courthouse, right?"
Hardcastle scowled. "Anyway…I knew he was proud of me, and he knew that I was proud of him, and we knew that we were important to each other. Is that what you mean?"
"Yeah," McCormick said, and Hardcastle caught the wistfulness in his tone. "Yeah, that's what I meant. Thanks."
"I saw it a lot, you know," Hardcastle offered. "How hard it is for a kid when that support's not there. When I was a cop, and when I was a judge. You see it all the time: kids whose parents don't care what they're up to, whether they do good in school…all that kind of thing. The kid might not know it up here" —tapping his temple— "that nobody cares, but it sinks in anyway. They get the message. When they don't have that…that's how a lot of people end up going down the wrong path. I was lucky that way, I guess, to have two people who gave a rat's behind how I turned out. You were lucky," he added.
McCormick blinked in surprise. "Me? Judge, Sonny left."
Hardcastle just looked at him, and finally McCormick said, "My mom stayed. That's what you mean?"
"Sure. Maybe it's better to be raised by one good parent than to have the influence of a bad one around. I'm not saying Sonny wouldn't have been a good father. But he thought he wouldn't."
"You mean he did me a favor? That's what he said."
Hardcastle made a face. "Not a favor. But maybe he knew his limitations. Being responsible for raising a kid…hey, that's tough. Maybe you did better without his influence than you would have with it. You ever think of that?"
"Oh, yeah. About a million times."
"And I probably wouldn't have done any worse." McCormick fell silent then, staring at his hands, but after a moment he seemed to come to a decision. He looked up and fixed Hardcastle with that trenchant gaze that the Judge knew so well, and said, "It was your idea, wasn't it." It was a statement, not a question. "To get the tapes, I mean. Not Sonny's."
Hardcastle was ready for this and countered with bluster. "What are you talking about? I told you: Sonny broke into the safe."
"No kidding. You couldn't break into a safe with a neutron bomb and the combination. But that's not what I said. It was your idea."
"Hey, this isn't grade school, McCormick. It doesn't matter who thought of it. We got the tapes and we got you back. That's all that counts. Now c'mon: I'm starving, here. How about breakfast?"
McCormick shook his head slowly. "No. No, that's not all that counts. It matters, Judge." McCormick understood Hardcastle's extreme reluctance to reply—as long as he stayed silent, the Judge wasn't lying to him—but he wasn't going to accommodate it, either. Not this time, and not on this subject. It wasn't so long ago that he'd found Hardcastle's unswerving honesty baffling and aggravating by turns, but he'd since come to rely on it as the one reassuring constant in his life: never wavering, never compromising, never betraying him. Sonny's failure to come clean about his role in the safecracking left McCormick relatively unmoved, but if he couldn't count on the truth from Hardcastle he thought it just might finish him.
For his part, Hardcastle even now was deeply unwilling to interfere with McCormick's relationship, such as it was, with Sonny, but he was also constitutionally incapable of denying a direct appeal for the truth. McCormick was watching him, waiting for his answer, and when he repeated, still in that quiet, determined voice, "It was you. Wasn't it?" Hardcastle sighed and said, "Yes."
"Finally," McCormick said with relief, slumping back in his chair.
Hardcastle stared at him. "'Finally?'"
"Finally, something I got right. All week I've been wrong about everything. Everything to do with Sonny, anyway. He wasn't going do it, was he? He was going to split. Right?"
Hardcastle just sighed.
"Three things. I'm on a roll."
"I'm sorry, kid."
"I know. And thanks. But I didn't…I guess I didn't really expect anything else. Not from him, anyway. But Judge, why didn't you tell me? Why'd you let me think it was his idea?"
"What, are you crazy?" Hardcastle cried. "I didn't want to shoot you down!"
"No," McCormick said bitterly, "that's Sonny's job."
"Sorry. I'm sorry." McCormick sighed. "I know you didn't want to say anything then. I understand that, and I appreciate it. I really do. But Judge, it wasn't true." He sat up and leaned forward, intent. "When I thought it was Sonny's idea to break into that safe I was proud of him, that he cared enough to take that risk. I thought maybe we had a chance to be friends, at least, after that. But it wasn't him. It's not fair that I thought those things about him, when it was you. It's not fair to him, because he didn't stand up, and it's not fair to you, because you did. It's not…" He searched unsuccessfully for the word he wanted. "It wasn't…"
McCormick looked at him in surprise and dawning realization. "Yeah. Yeah," he said. "Hardcase, if I can't get that from you" --he shrugged helplessly-- "then I don't know where else to go." When the Judge didn't answer he added, after a pause, "Does that make sense?"
"Sure it does." Getting taken to task for being disingenuous didn't happen to Hardcastle very often, and in spite of his good intentions he wasn't proud of himself now. "You're right," he said simply. "I should've told you. But try to see it from my side, will you? You were happy, and everything, and besides…I didn't want to get in the way of you and your dad—"
"He's not my dad."
"Sure he is—"
McCormick shook his head adamantly. "No, he's my father. That's not the same thing. He left us, Judge. He left my mom, and…that's not what dads do. Dads stick around, they teach you to play catch, they…" He gestured vaguely.
"They build soapbox racers with you."
"Yeah. They give you advice. Hell, I've gotten more advice from you in the last week than Sonny could come up with in the next twenty years."
Hardcastle looked thoughtful. "Are you sorry you went out there?"
"No." McCormick's answer was immediate. "No, I did what I wanted to do. I wanted to find my—my father, and I did. I wanted to ask him why he left, and I did. So it's not like I lost anything by going. I kind of gained, even, because now I have answers. I didn't have that before. They weren't the answers I wanted to hear, I guess, but they're answers."
"Well," Hardcastle said, hoping to inject a lighter tone into the conversation, "that's a very mature way of looking at things. Are they answers you can live with?"
"I have to," McCormick said simply. "They're the only answers he had." He brightened somewhat. "And at least now I know where I stand with him, and with…well. I know where I stand."
Hardcastle folded his arms across his chest and leaned back. "Would that be anywhere near the stove?"
McCormick smiled at that. He rose, retrieved the skillet from its cupboard and put it on the front burner to preheat. Turning, he said thoughtfully, as though reciting a quote from memory, "People are who they are, not who you wish they were."
"Well," Hardcastle said, "that's true as far as it goes. But it works the other way around, too: You can't account for other people, but you gotta account for yourself. Your parents start you out in life, but they can't take the credit or the blame forever. At some point you gotta step up and make your own way, make yourself into something you can live with. So maybe Sonny doesn't get a plaque for Father Of The Year. You still gotta decide who you want to be."
The beginning of a smile tugged at the corner of McCormick's mouth. He'd gotten answers, all right, and not just from Sonny. While the experience of meeting his father was still a little raw, time and distance and Hardcastle were already giving him a better perspective on it, and whereas he no longer greatly cared where he stood with Sonny, he cared very much where he stood with the Judge. Hardcastle had packed a bag, paid for two round trip airline tickets, and flown across the continent with him, no questions asked. Sonny sold him a tie. Hardcastle once waived his chance at a Supreme Court nomination to keep their parole arrangement intact. Sonny ditched him for a nightclub gig. As he stood there looking at his friend McCormick realized that what he wanted to be was a better man, one who could be as good a friend to Hardcastle as Hardcastle had been to him, and these thoughts found expression in a look of such candid affection that Hardcastle scowled blackly at him.
"Are you going to start breakfast some time before lunch?" he demanded.
The familiar, imperious tone brought McCormick out of his reverie. His smile grew wider. "Thanks, Judge."
"Hey, are you gonna stand there until the bottom melts out of that pan?" Hardcastle cried. "Get going!"
McCormick caught up the bowl of pancake batter. "So: with or without chocolate chips?"
"With, of course," Hardcastle said urbanely, and reached for the newspaper. "I'm not a savage either, you know."
McCormick laughed. "Now there's an opening I can drive a truck through."